In the modern Western world, there exists a noticeable trend, both ideologically and conceptually, to confuse and conflate ethnocultural heritage with geographical locale. This propensity for conflation often leads to oversimplified and historically inaccurate assertions. A common manifestation of this is the oversimplified assertion along the lines of, “Cleopatra ruled Egypt, so she must have been African!” Or, “Septimius Severus was born in Africa (ancient Leptis Magna, modern-day Libya), thus he was Rome’s first Black Emperor!” The same faulty logic is applied to the brilliant Carthaginian general and statesman, Hannibal Barca. Let’s assess what we know.
The Founding of Carthage
The ancient city of Carthage, located in present-day Tunisia, was founded in the 9th century BC, around the year 814 BC. It was established by Canaanite-Phoenician settlers from the Near Eastern city-state of Tyre, which is located in what is now modern-day Lebanon. The ancient Phoenicians were renowned for their seafaring capabilities and emerged as a significant mercantile maritime power during and after the Bronze Age collapse. They also colonized large swathes of the Mediterranean world and beyond.
The term “Punic,” used as an ethnonym for the Carthaginians and other Western Phoenician peoples, is from the Latin “punicus,” adopted from the ancient Greek word Φοῖνιξ (“Phoînix”), probably meaning “Tyrian purple.” Tyrian purple was a much sought-after and expensive dye originally produced in Tyre, and its rarity helped contribute to the basis of the association of the color purple with royalty.
Returning to Carthage, a number of recent genetic studies have indicated that the Phoenician peoples from the area of Carthaginian influence in the Western Mediterranean share a number of genetic affinities with modern-day European and North African populations. Meaning that the Punic people were not “Black.”
From its humble beginnings as a Phoenician mercantile entrepôt, Carthage would eventually evolve into a formidable empire, exerting geopolitical and cultural hegemony over vast swathes of the Western Mediterranean.
The Barcid Dynasty
Initially mirroring its founding city of Tyre, Carthage was originally governed by a monarchy. However, this system was eventually abolished, paving the way for a government primarily controlled by aristocratic families competing for power and influence within the office of the Suffete and the Senate.
Prominent among these were two ruling dynasties: the Magonids, who held power from the 6th to the 4th centuries BC, and the Barcids It was during the dominance of the Magonids that Carthage was transformed from a city-state into an empire, leading its expansion into the islands of Sardinia and Sicily, as well as Northwestern Africa, most notably Libya.
The Barcids, Hannibal’s family, later rose to prominence in the 3rd century BC; to be discussed below. Needless to say, the power and influence of the Barcids was pivotal in formulating Carthage’s political and military strategies, especially in response to the growing power of Rome in the Western Mediterranean world.
Hamilcar: Hannibal’s Father
It was the heroic actions of Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar, during the First Punic War (264–241 BC) with Rome that led to the establishment of the Barcid dynasty. Hamilcar is believed to have been born in ancient Cyrene, which is now part of modern-day Libya. His family belonged to the landed aristocracy, and he was of Punic descent. Interestingly, ancient Cyrene was founded and settled by ancient Greek peoples, largely from the Peloponnese and Crete, in the 7th century BC, meaning that the area was heavily Hellenized.
Hamilcar’s birthplace in this region is intriguing, to say the least. Despite the frequent conflicts between the ancient Greeks of Cyrene and their neighboring non-Greek peoples, it is more than probable that Hamilcar was significantly influenced by the pervasive Hellenic culture of his homeland. Hamilcar emerged as a prominent figure during the First Punic War (264–241 BC), becoming renowned for his successful guerrilla-style campaigns in Sicily and his audacious coastal raids against the Italian coast. He earned the epithet “Barca,” translating to “Thunderbolt” or “Shining,” a title that reflected his military acumen and became both the namesake and hallmark of the Barcid dynasty.
After the First Punic War, Hamilcar’s successful suppression of a mercenary uprising in North Africa (240–238 BC) greatly elevated the prestige of the Barcids within Carthaginian society. Subsequently, he led the expansion of Carthaginian influence into the Iberian Peninsula (present-day Spain and Portugal) and established a significant, decades-long Carthaginian colonial presence in the region.
Hamilcar spent a substantial portion of his life in Iberia, engaging in fierce battles with the peoples of the region and laying the groundwork for what would become the stronghold of Barcid power. Hannibal’s Mother: Details regarding Hannibal’s maternal lineage are noticeably scarce and obscure. It has been speculated that his mother might have been of Iberian heritage, aligning with the Barcids’ recent practice of undertaking exogamous marriages for the purposes of political expediency.
Support for this theory comes from the unions of Hannibal’s sisters with Numidian royalty, coupled with the fact that his father, Hamilcar, spent much of his life in Iberia. As a result, Hannibal’s ancestry was Punic, potentially mixed with Iberian. From this, we can conclude that Hannibal was of Punic or possibly Punic-Iberian heritage, and most certainly not “Black” or of Sub-Saharan African origin.